We stood at the base of Saddle Mountain near Seaside looking up
through the mist at the great boulders on the top. The aroma of
burnt sage mingled with rich scents of the wet forest as Jeff Painter
told the ancient story of the origins of the Clatsop people. Our
small band had gathered to perform ceremony as the start of a process
of reconnecting with the ancestors of this tribe for the first time
in 130 years, opening a time of healing of the wounds to the soul
of these people and of prayer for the healing of the earth.
To the heartbeat rhythm of the drum Jeff sang sacred ceremonial
chants handed down through untold generations of Native Americans.
These chants were Lakota, because there was no one left among the
Clatsop who knew their own songs. In order to have the right to
sing them, Jeff had to learn Lakota and receive each song, along
with its history, from another singer who had the right to use it
in ceremony. Twelve different tribes gave him songs in this way,
since they may not be recorded or written down.
The terrible injustices that forcibly removed young children from
their families led to the complete loss of the Clatsop language.
The children were raised in Christian boarding schools
and when they returned as young adults, they were unable to understand
or identify with their parents and grandparents and this vital link
to their culture was lost. At the same time they were callously
rejected by mainstream American society, resulting in confusion,
alienation and intermarriage. Coming from a culture where family
and community provide both education and a support network, it is
not astonishing that many took refuge in drugs and alcohol.
This was certainly Jeff Painters experience, and it provided
the background and motivation for his total commitment to the regeneration
of Native American communities and to helping others turn their
lives around. In his twenties Jeff found himself in hospital, his
body devastated by drug and alcohol abuse and his spirit not caring
whether he lived or died. A counselor asked him whether there was
anything he cared about and the only time he could think of that
was good in his life was when he was in nature. He took himself
back to the land and began a spiritual odyssey that took him through
many religions and traditions until he finally found his place by
connecting with the Clatsop part of his ancestry. Years of study
with his adopted Lakota grandpa Martin and others prepared him to
take on the spiritual leadership of the Clatsop tribe and to conduct
the ceremonies of reconciliation and healing so needed today.
Far from being a mere cultural exercise, Jeff sees the re-creation
of Native American communities as the cornerstone of the healing
of the body, mind and spirit of his people. It is the foundation
of the Wellness Movement, which addresses the rampant dis-eases
found in the native community such as diabetes, domestic violence
and fetal alcohol syndrome. A major focus of Jeffs activities
is with drug and alcohol treatment centers.
By reintroducing people to a sense of belonging to a community
through native ceremonies, Jeff helps people find a way of life
that is positive and responsible. Personal responsibility is the
core. In the Sweat Lodge Jeff asks, What is your darkness?
What have you done or are you doing to get out of it?
He uses the four circles of the Medicine Wheel as the model for
healing and reintegration. It is analogous to the community social
order at a Powwow, surrounding the warmth and light of a central
bonfire. In the outer circle are the lost ones. They stand alone
in the darkness and do not understand the language or know the dances.
In the next circle are those who have chosen to learn. They may
bump into one another, but they are learning. The third circle is
called Looking at something good. This is where the
Elders-in-training, the drummers, singers and Sundancers will be.
The inner circle is called Hachoka, or center for the altar. It
is the place where the Elders dance. An Elder is one who has achieved
wisdom in any pursuit the best ones at hunting, basket weaving,
tanning, beading or whatever. The circles are a way of inspiring
and providing recognition of heroes and good people.
There is no shame at being in the outer circles, and only encouragement
and support for moving toward the center. There are always people
to help find ones own gift, but it is up to the individual
to circulate, observe, find the thing that attracts him or her and
find a mentor. There will always be someone a bit further on to
learn from. Pretty soon he or she will find his or her own niche.
The first step on this new path is to lay down the burden of anger
for the past. Jeff says the ancestors call this a Time for Forgiving.
Without forgiving there is no healing. Only then can you go forward
with a full heart to find your own way. Jeff Painter found his niche
as a ceremonial singer. This involves not only understanding the
meaning and intent behind the words of the songs, but also knowing
what spirits are involved and projecting the songs with feeling
and energy. It is a position of great responsibility, and in this
way Jeff is embodying what he preaches: responsibility for self,
for the community and for the earth.